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Language and Life

Opportunities And Expectations
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

On a trip from Kenya to Zambia, I was reading the in-flight magazine of Zambia Airways, Ndeke Tales.  I saw an ad for agricultural equipment, in Portuguese.  A heading about half-way down the ad had caught my attention.  It was a two-page ad, most of which was a close-up photo of a red plow in a field.  The text was one column on the right edge of the spread.

I was thinking as I read about the agricultural tools made in Mozambique, that it seemed odd that the ad was in Portuguese in an English magazine.  Only after I had finished reading to the end of the ad did I realize that it was Portuguese only from where I began reading!  The upper headline and the first half of the ad was the same thing in English.

Why had I seen the Portuguese first and not the English?  Since I am interested in languages, the bold Portuguese headline in the middle caught my attention, and I had read from that point.  I thought it was just a division heading, and did not look above it.  I assumed the whole ad was in Portuguese.

The Challenge
I had seen the Portuguese because it was Portuguese.  I was on the alert for the different, and that was what caught my attention.  I struggled through the Portuguese, trying to puzzle out the meaning as an interesting challenge, when I could have read the same material in English much more easily.

But in English, I would only have been learning about a company that produces plows, not of great interest to me.  As it was, I had the exhilarating experience of learning about a company that produces plows – in Portuguese.  (No, they don't produce plows in Portuguese; I was learning about them in Portuguese.  But then again, maybe they do produce them in Portuguese.  I doubt that they produce them in English!  But then, I am straying, aren't I?)

The People
We notice what we condition ourselves to give attention to.  In language learning, if you focus on the target language, its people and their culture, these will be the things you notice.  The language you are struggling with is the door to the vista of their cultural worldview, the thought behind the social interactions you see.

Retreat Into Schizophrenia
If you focus on retreating from the drudgery of tough work in language learning, you will see the English and will retreat from the people and their culture and language.  This will make you schizophrenic, which will probably produce more stress than focusing on the people and their language at every opportunity!

Your Plan
Plan your opportunities.  Take advantage of the natural opportunities presented to you.  Decide what your longterm goal is.  Set your expectations and focus on that, your goal and motivation in intimate communication and relationship with the people, in their own cultural context and the language of their own thought.

Also related:
[TXT] Real-Life Learning — The Principle of Association
[TXT] Transfer of Language Experience


Originally published as a general article in the cross-cultural communication newsletter Focus on Communication Effectiveness, December 1996
Updated as an article for Thoughts and Resources 21 April 2008

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 1996, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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